Travels October 2006

Escape to Old Russia

The Golden Ring, northeast of Moscow, offers a respite from the capital and an immersion in the past

In the thirteenth century, hordes of Tatar Mongolian warriors rode out of the Eurasian steppes and laid waste to most of Russia, enslaving or massacring the population and occupying the land in the south. The towns of Rostov, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Bogolyubovo, more than 150 miles northeast of Moscow (at the time a remote provincial village), were pillaged by the invaders but spared the occupation. Previously isolated amid forests and on windswept plains, but seated on or near the upper Volga and with access to trade, these towns flourished in loosely allied autonomous principalities for the next 200 years. Forming a rough semicircle, and with a bounty of gilt-cupolaed churches, they and other nearby towns acquired a collective name: the Golden Ring.

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"The Travel Advisory"
Where to go, stay, and eat, if you go to the Golden Ring. By Jeffrey Tayler

The Ring exemplifies what I like best about the Russian countryside: rural hospitality; somnolent landscapes and tree-lined lanes where pedestrians stroll and cars are few; wooden cabins with plumes of smoke trailing from the chimneys; the dreamy susurrus of the wind through the trees. The area is within easy reach of Moscow—several hours by car or train, or a longer but more pleasant ferry ride up the Volga—and provides a welcome escape from the capital’s traffic and crowds. But most of all, as I discovered recently, a visit to the Golden Ring surrounds one with the artistic and spiritual treasures of Old Russia: the masterpieces of Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, and the evocation of a hazy, half-mythical era of lost liberties, a time before Moscow arose as Russia’s unifier and despot.

As I approached Rostov, a cold wind rolled off Lake Nero, pushing a mosaic of gunmetal clouds. Here and there rays of sunlight shot through, illuminating rows of turquoise and green cabins along the hilly shore, glancing off the domes and crucifixes atop the Cathedral of the Assumption in the town’s citadel, or kremlin. Later that day I walked the kremlin’s courtyard with my guide, a young woman named Irina who, with her round eyes, plump figure, and flaxen hair coiffed beneath a pink shawl, reminded me of a matryoshka doll.

Irina recounted Rostov’s history in elegiac tones. The town’s first Slavic inhabitants came from Novgorod, in the boggy forests to the north, late in the first millennium, mixing peaceably with local Finno Ugric tribes. As their numbers increased, so did their need for protection. Rostov’s centerpiece is the kremlin, a stone structure of solemn grandeur. With six onion-domed churches, it stands starkly on the plains, evoking the isolation the town must have felt as much of the country was settled by the Mongols.

By 1207, Rostov was the capital of an eponymous principality that evolved into one of medieval Russia’s main city-states. And as the resting place for the remains of Saint Dmitry Rostovsky, who died there in 1709, it became a center for Orthodox pilgrims, who would come from all over the country to pray at his tomb. This was, Irina assured me, not mere folklore: the church has certified 300 miracles of healing in Rostov.

In their campaign against religion, the Soviets leveled most of Rostov’s churches and deliberately neglected the town. The government housed proletarians in the monks’ cells at the fourteenth-century Monastery of St. Jacob, which we visited next, and used the magnificent Cathedral of the Conception as a barn. Today about twenty monks inhabit the monastery. They look after an ever-changing number of trudniki, men who drift from monastery to monastery doing manual labor in exchange for food and shelter. I found something reassuring in this: despite the feverish efforts of the Soviets, the communal structures of Old Russia have survived here, at least in a small way.

A ninety-minute taxi ride northeast from Rostov took me across undulant, dun-colored plains and gave me my first view of Yaroslavl: billboards and Brezhnev-era concrete tenements. I wasn’t expecting this depressing sort of modernity here. But as we shot past the tenements, onion domes rose up around us. Yaroslavl, like Rostov, is renowned for its ancient churches, which are everywhere in the city. Pedestrian streets teeming with shoppers dead-ended at cathedral walls; markets where old women haggled over cheese and sausage abutted antique brick churches; young people strolled in and out of cafés and pizza parlors in the shadows of belfries. With a population of 680,000, Yaroslavl bustled in a way that tiny Rostov, with only 40,000 inhabitants, could not, yet it exuded the same sort of charm.

And the city has its peaceful places. At the Museum of Music and Time, located in a fin-de-siècle merchant’s house on the Volga, I drifted into reverie listening to the ticking of countless Swiss, German, and French clocks from centuries past, along with an intermittent, soothing concert of chimes that sounded regardless of the hour. (The clocks were not synchronized.) I heard a Cupid-emblazoned German Klingsor gramophone playing Chaliapin and Caruso; Swiss music boxes that tinkled out ditties; and an Odessan street organ called a sharmanka (from the French charmant) that, when cranked, emitted a circus tune. Scenes from the works of Tolstoy and Chekhov came inescapably to mind. Indeed, in another room tiny porcelain figures representing heroes from Russian literature stood frozen in crystalline light.

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Jeffrey Tayler lives in Moscow and is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny.

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